The story opens in the midst of Kate and Julia Morkan’s annual Christmas party, with the caretaker’s daughter Lily taking the male party guest’s coats, while Julia and Kate attend to the women’s coats. The two have been hosting the party for many years and are joined by their only niece Mary Jane, who moved in with them after her father’s death thirty years ago. All three women are very musical: Mary Jane plays the organ at Haddington Road; Julia, though she is “quite grey,” is the leading soprano in a church; and Kate gives music lessons from home.
The theme of death begins to appear subtly even in the story’s opening descriptions, as Mary Jane’s father represents an initial mention of “the dead.” Additionally, the color grey is used in the physical description of Aunt Julia to symbolize her old age and proximity to death. Joyce also introduces the motif of music here. This is a musical family, and music will play an important role throughout the story.
Kate and Julia are starting to wonder where their nephew Gabriel is, as it is already after ten o’clock and he is not usually late. They are also waiting on Freddy Malins, who often arrives late and drunk. When Gabriel finally arrives, along with his wife Gretta, Lily takes his coat, which is covered with snow from outside. Lily asks if it is snowing, and Gabriel confirms, suddenly noticing that Lily has matured into a woman since the last time he saw her. He asks if she has finished school yet, and then comments that they will probably be attending her wedding soon. Lily unexpectedly snaps back with bitterness about men her age. Gabriel is immediately hurt by her sharp reaction to what he intended as a compliment. He hastily hands her a tip, insisting that she take it in the spirit of Christmas, and hurries to the stairs, still shaken by the exchange.
As Gabriel enters the party he is covered in snow. Taken in light of the story’s final image, this is perhaps meant to hint at the idea of mortality, and emphasize the fact that Gabriel is mortal like everyone else. His interaction with Lily then shows how much his pride depends on his interactions with women, since her bitter response to his question (which seems entirely based in her own unhappy experiences, and not a reflection on Gabriel himself) puts him in a sullen mood for the beginning of the party. This reinforces the fact that, since Lily is a woman in society, Gabriel expects her to politely respond to his question, and he doesn’t even consider why she might have responded in the way she did.
Gabriel begins to think of the speech he is to give that night, questioning his choice to quote Robert Browning, an English writer, whom he fears might be too sophisticated and obscure for his audience. Gabriel hears the men’s heavy footsteps above as they dance and is reminded that his audience is less cultured than he is. He worries that it will appear he is flaunting his superior education, and he begins to worry that his entire speech is a failure.
Gabriel’s pride is so wounded from his interaction with Lily that he is beginning to question his entire speech. He clearly feels superior to his peers because he believes Dublin and its inhabitants are somewhat provincial or culturally backwards. He imagines his audience won’t be able to understand a complicated English poet, and will resent him for flaunting the fact that he is more cultured than they are.
Julia, Kate, and Gretta interrupt Gabriel’s thoughts as they exit the dressing room. Aunt Julia’s face and hair are grey, and Gabriel notices that her slow, confused nature gives her the appearance of someone who doesn’t know where she is or where she is going. Aunt Kate looks a bit healthier. The women greet Gabriel, who is their favorite nephew, and begin talking with him and his wife. Aunt Kate asks about their decision to spend the night in a hotel rather than taking a cab home, and Gabriel explains that Gretta got a cold from the cab ride last time, and then adds jokingly that she would willingly walk home in the snow. Gretta and his aunts tease Gabriel about his choice to wear galoshes, and Gabriel becomes defensive, explaining that they’re popular on the “continent.”
Aunt Julia’s “grey” appearance is mentioned again, perhaps foreshadowing the scene where Gabriel imagines her funeral. Gretta teases Gabriel about his galoshes, and this seems to bother him even though he tries to hide it—he clearly takes himself quite seriously. His preference for galoshes springs from his belief that everything from the “continent” (continental Europe) is superior to Ireland and Dublin. He defends his decision by saying that galoshes are popular on the continent, but neither his aunts nor Gretta seem to understand this reasoning.
Gabriel and Gretta’s conversation with Julia and Kate is interrupted by the arrival of Freddy Malins. Aunt Kate asks Gabriel to go keep an eye on Freddy and not to let him upstairs if he is drunk. As Gabriel heads downstairs to Freddy, Kate offers drinks to Miss Daly and Miss Power. Mr. Browne, another guest, leads them, along with Miss Furlong, into the back room for drinks as Kate disappears. Mr. Browne proceeds to flirt with the women, who politely indulge him at first but eventually lose interest. Kate and another party guest enter the room and announce that it’s time to pair up for the next waltz. Gabriel escorts Freddy Malins upstairs to join the party. Gabriel assures Aunt Kate that Freddy is not noticeably drunk, although his behavior suggests otherwise.
Gabriel’s aunts reaffirm his role as the man in charge by asking him to look after Freddy Malins, who himself appears as a potential wild card in the otherwise polite and rather formal atmosphere. Mr. Browne, whose name is later used to reference the color brown and represent the dullness of Dublin, proceeds to act like a stereotypically entitled man, making an effort to flirt with the women at the party until they grow bored. Mr. Browne represents everything Gabriel dislikes about Dublin – he is ignorant and simple, but also overconfident. He repeats the same dull jokes throughout the night and talks a lot without saying anything valuable. The women, for their part, are expected to indulge Browne politely rather than directly rejecting his advances.